Mastering the Art of Grandma's Cooking
"People who love to eat are always the best people." - JC
Everything I know and love about cooking, I learned from my grandma. I’m not talking knife technique or how to make a brisket. She taught me the fundamentals, like making a mess, licking the spoon, using all the butter, and not losing your shit when the sauce doesn’t come out quite right. She didn’t mean to make me fall in love with cooking, but then again Julia didn’t mean to either.
A couple months ago, I was visiting Los Angeles and my grandma pulled out a dusty copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was her 1964 copy, with a weathered spine and pages brown the way only loved books can be. Bookmarked were some of her favorite recipes, the red-edged pages of which were scribbled with her notes in curly, barely legible cursive. She said I could keep it – she’s been making these recipes since the 60s and hardly needed a guide anymore – so I did.
“Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again.” - JC
I read the book cover to cover, feeling a strange sense of familiarity with the recipes, the asides, and Julia’s overall approach to cooking and entertaining. Considering I knew shamefully little (bordering nothing) about Julia Child, this simpatico seemed odd. But then I realized that I had known Julia as long as I’ve been cooking with my grandma. My grandma’s playful, creative, make-it-work approach to cooking is a ricochet of learning to cook the Julia way. While I can’t say I’m nearly as graceful or intuitive as either of them are, the book – scribbled notes, splattered pages and all – pointed out that the cook I want to be is the one I grew up watching.
"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude." - JC
“You'll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.” - JC
When I started talking to people about Julia, everyone was shocked and appalled that I hadn’t ever seen Julie and Julia – the Amy Adams/Meryl Streep film that tells the side-by-side stories of a quirky panicked blogger and an American living in Paris learning to cook. I watched it while pathetically nibbling on overcooked gnocchi during tooth-pocalypse 2016 and haven’t stopped doing the Julia Child voice since.
Conveniently enough, my turn to prepare team dinner was around the corner. I consulted the cookbook, recruited a squad of fellow Chewse chefs, and planned a menu that required more butter and fat than I’ve consumed in the past year. The ingredients were few – French cooking isn’t much more than carrots, onions, mushrooms, beef, wine, herbs, and butter – but the quantities were large.
“You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients.” - JC
My first attempt at these long winded recipes was for a group of 25. What’s more, we had a few vegans in the building, which is probably the dirtiest word in the dictionary according to Julia. As I ordered the margarine on Instacart, I could practically feel Julia turning in her grave. Alas, we altered a few recipes to keep our vegans far from animal products but still damn close to the indulgence we all enjoyed.
“The only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook.” - JC
“If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” - JC
The recipes I chose are a mix of my grandma’s favorites and French classics. We cooked nearly all day, first getting the mise en place assembled, then browning the meat and caramelizing onions, and finally assembling everything at the last minute. We had French Onion Soup with Gruyere toast, Niçoise salad, scallion mashed potatoes, Boeuf Bourguignon, and mushroom bourguignon.
Boeuf Bourguignon is a hearty, wine saturated braise, so while drinking at work is generally frowned upon, Julia’s orders to always cook with a glass of the wine you’re using took precedence over the rules.
"I enjoy cooking with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food..." - JC
The night before, I was telling my grandma about my master plan to bring her old cookbook to life. Her only concern was that I wouldn’t have time to work all day (she was right) with my ambitious menu and instructed me to save time by caramelizing the onions with the boeuf in the oven, where they would “simmer and make love to each other all day.”
The meal came together perfectly – plates were full and then empty, full and then empty. The soup was sweet and comforting, infused with the flavors of day-long caramelized onions, cooked in white wine. The salad was fresh, herby, and simple – great balance for the Boeuf Bourguignon. Speaking of which, the boeuf was fall apart tender and the sauce, brilliantly silky and rich – perfect for a side of creamy mashed potatoes.
"Everything in moderation…including moderation." - JC
I introduced the meal in my best Julia voice and passed out hearts for everyone to wear a la the film’s portrayal of Julia and Paul’s Valentines Day party. Lucky for me, my company loves to eat. There were firsts, then seconds, more wine, and plenty more after that.
The meal we ate tasted like something unique to that evening – the amalgamation of hard work (damn you, pearl onions) and local ingredients – but it also tasted nostalgic. These recipes belong to my childhood – the flavors and smells bring me back to my grandmother’s house, to dinner parties where she cooked and I baked Hershey’s chocolate cake, to each special moment we’ve shared where she, without really meaning to, has helped me master the art of French cooking.
“Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” - JC
Recipes as they appear in Mastering The Art Of FrenchCooking, with a few adjustments from Grandma, and a few more from me:
Soupe À L’Oignon (serves 6-8)
1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced yellow onions
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 quarts beef or vegetable stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper
Cook the onions slowly with the butter and oil in the covered saucepan for 15 minutes.
Uncover, raise heat to moderate, and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep, golden brown.
Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes.
Off heat, blend in the liquid. Add the wine, and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes or more, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning.
Salad Niçoise (serves 6-8)
1 cup vinaigrette with herbs (combine the following ingredients)
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups French potato salad (combine the following ingredients)
3 cups Yukon gold potatoes, boiled and quartered
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup pitted Niçoise olives, halved
2 or 3 hard boiled eggs, cold, peeled, and quartered
1 head Boston/butter lettuce, separated, washed, drained, and dried
3 cups cold, blanched, green beans, halved
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
Put it all in a bowl and toss it!
Boeuf Bourguignon (serves 6)
3 pounds chuck roast beef, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 sliced carrot
1 sliced onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups full-bodied red wine
2 to 3 cups beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
1 bay leaf
18 to 24 pearl onions, braised in beef broth
1 pound quartered crimini mushrooms, sautéed in butter
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Dry the beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Sauté it, a few pieces at a time, in hot oil in a cast iron dutch oven, until nicely browned on all sides. Remove from dutch oven.
Brown the vegetables in the dutch oven with the leftover oil.
Return the beef to the dutch oven and toss with salt and pepper. Sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Set dutch oven uncovered in middle position of pre-heated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the meat and return to oven for 4 more minutes. Remove the dutch oven and turn heat down to 325 degrees.
Stir in the wine, and enough stock so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, garlic, and herbs. Bring to simmer on top of stove. Then cover the dutch oven and set in lower third of preheated oven. Simmer in the oven for 3-4 hours. The meat is done when a fork pieces it easily.
While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Set aside until needed.
When the meat is tender, mix in the onions and mushrooms and serve!
Mushroom Bourguignon (directly from smitten kitchen)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 pounds crimini mushrooms, quartered
1/2 carrot, finely diced
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup full-bodied red wine
2 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried)
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup pearl onions, peeled
Heat the one tablespoon of the olive oil and one tablespoon of butter in a heavy sauce pan over high heat.
Sear the mushrooms until they begin to darken, but not yet release any liquid — about three or four minutes. Remove them from pan.
Lower the flame to medium and add the second tablespoon of olive oil. Toss the carrots, onions, thyme, a few pinches of salt and a several grinds of black pepper into the pan and cook for 10, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
Add the wine, scraping any stuck bits off the bottom, then turn the heat all the way up and reduce it by half.
Stir in the tomato paste and broth. Add back the mushrooms with any juices that have collected and once the liquid has boiled, reduce the temperature so it simmers for 20 minutes, or until mushrooms are very tender.
Add the pearl onions and simmer for five minutes more.
Stir the flour into the stew. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 more minutes. If the sauce is too thin, boil it down to reduce to the right consistency. Season to taste.